The Jaw-Dropping Khmer Temples Of Cambodia

Throughout earth’s history, there have existed mighty, regionally-isolated civilizations all over the world. These were beacons of organization, mathematics, and artistic expression. They were fated to fall, however, due to the peoples surrounding them, the members within them, and the state of warring and conquering they all stewed within.

One of these old kingdoms was located in South East Asia.

The Khmer Empire, whose descendants inhabit Cambodia today, had its flash-in-the-era-glass between 800-1300 AD. Before they resolved to the past, though, they created lasting impressions: incredible temples embodying their spirit which are now the proud symbols of a country and a people.

The Ancient Temples of Angkor are situated in north-central Cambodia, near the modern-day city of Siem Reap. My exploration and eye-opening time here brought about powerful themes of inevitability, permanence, nature, society, and religion. Off we go…

The Nature of the Temples:

In all, there are over 70 temples to visit, sprinkled throughout the former heart of this ancient civilization. Thirty or so are regularly visited and the most famous are clustered within 15km from Siem Reap, where I was staying. These include Angkor Wat (the biggest, most famous of all), Angkor Thom (the famed, walled city within ancient Angkor) and Ta Prohm (the temple with all the gnarly trees). $40 got me a three-day pass to visit all but the most far-out temples.

My first stop was Angkor Thom (sounds like “anchor tom”). From my hostel in Siam Reap, I rented an old, single-gear bicycle and pedaled the few kilometers to the temples. It was a warm day with clear skies. Exposed to this pleasantry, I made the correct choice to bike.

I approached the ancient city and was greeting with this:

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The South Gate

1000 years ago it was just jungle and these giant faces looking down on the Khmer villagers. It’s a wonder to imagine being a peasant back then while approaching this gate. One would be inclined to believe in the divinity of their god-kings.

God-king's got his eye on you
God-king’s got his eye on you

Some of these faces could use a head, though.

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I parked my bike on a nearby rack and walked through the gate. On the backside was the first sign of this comforting and fascinating blend that would be consistent throughout these temple explorations: nature’s interaction with the old man-made.

Earth and stone beneath your feet, providing a conductor to Mother Nature.
Earth and stone beneath your feet, providing a conductor to Mother Nature.

Indeed, rather than going straight into the temple city, I walked around it. A city wall half-swallowed by earth lined its border.

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It was just me along these walls: jungle to one side, river to the other.

There was an immediate calm–a clear head and so the senses fully exposed to the “isness” around you in nature. And if the trees and water and earth didn’t arouse that sense of the natural, perhaps these creatures might:

Not afraid to stand up to me
Not afraid to stand up to me

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The apes of the world truly add a link between us and the rest of the animals. Looking at them, handing them food, it’s an interaction that’s not human, but human-like.

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I continued on my way…

Having started as the southern gate, I walked the length of the south wall, came to the western side, and then made it to the western gate.

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Here, I entered Angkor Thom.

A thousand years will take it’s toll, and restoration is underway on some of the Khmer temples–this includes one here inside Angkor Thom. I came upon what is referred to as “the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world.”

Because of political tensions in the last century, one temple here was taken apart as part of a movement to remove historic artifacts. This destruction also included the records of this temple’s arrangement. So today, the architects are trying to put humpty-dumpty back together again–all 30,000 pieces.

Workers chipping away at the puzzle pieces
Workers chipping away at the puzzle pieces

On the backside of one of Angkor Thom’s temples, can you make out the giant Buddha?

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A note on temple layout: They’re not big, domed buildings as you might expect, but more an arrangement of smaller temples-rooms with walkways connecting them. There’s a lot of open space. The largest temples (and some are enormous) have multiple levels, each a surface of walkways and temples-rooms. 

Within Angkor Thom are a few such temples, as well as other ancient buildings. But before I explored all those, I biked away from its north side to see another nearby temple, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prom hadn’t been taken apart like some structures of Angkor Thom. No, it had been maintained in a sense by nature–held in place by the growth of trees whose hold sometimes almost devoured the temples.

Its outer wall offered a good first example:

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Somehow (who knows how many years ago) a tree seed sprouted atop this wall. And as it grew, its roots searched for more nutrients, travelling down the wall’s height. Anchored atop, the tree thrived.

Here’s a shot of Ta Prohm’s interior:

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And here are more trees:

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Whoa. Not like wood; more like muscle. Not like a tree, but like an animal.
Whoa. Not like wood; more like muscle. Not like a tree, but like an animal.

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Nature is relentless. It’s not fast, but it’s relentless. To imagine Manhattan as a wilderness seems obscenely ridiculous, but it would happen if left alone. If not for prevention here, the wilderness here would have swallowed up much of these temples.

There’s an unsettling beauty to nature’s reclamation of these temples and the truth that it will take back everything that which we create from it. But there’s also a calm from the blending of nature and the man-made.

Both feelings are offered by the temples of ancient Khmer.

Dusk approached. So I biked back to my hostel. More temples awaited the following day.

What say you?